Person, place or thing? If you ask the classic first question of the 20 Questions game to Ben Joyce, he’ll know which one is most important. Place. It’s always about place for Joyce, in life and in art, with the idea of “place” influencing his entire career and calling as an artist.
The places that have played a role in Joyce’s life are varied. There’s Acton, California, where here grew up, the fifth of eight children. San Diego is where he started his college career, played football and studied architecture. Spokane comes into the picture as he transferred to Gonzaga University his sophomore year, and he came back here to marry a Spokanite and make it his hometown. Florence, Italy, however, may be one of the most important places in the geography of Joyce’s life.
“Abstract Topophilia®’s birthplace was in Florence, during my year abroad,” says Joyce, referring to the registered name given to the style of art he created, named and upon which he has built his career.
“Florence is kind of a legacy in my family,” he says. Over 40 members of his family have gone on the Florence exchange program, and his parents met while both over there studying. “It wasn’t a question,” he says of spending a year abroad in Florence. “My parents were adamant about us kids having that once in a lifetime experience. My parents said, ‘You don’t have a choice, we have to influence this decision.’”
Turns out going to Florence was a great decision. “It was my first awareness of one’s connection to place,” says Joyce of his time there. “I was living as a 19 year old, new to adult life and experiences, with new independence.”
Joyce noticed that throughout Europe there was such a pride of place, and it was a unique awareness. Wanting to incorporate that pride of place, he also “was yearning to find a style that allowed viewers to travel through landscape, but I was wondering how do you find or allow for deep connection in a framed landscape?” Knowing there are only so many walls on which to hang landscape paintings, Joyce yearned for something that would capture the connection to place, but not be limited by the borders of a frame or of a single scene.
It was another place that called to Joyce, when he moved to Southern California for a few years. “I could keep a job for about six months, and then I’d go crazy,” he says of his early years of employment after graduating from Gonzaga, during which time he would work on his paintings after hours. “It’s something where you know yourself and know it’s not the right fit,” he says of the jobs he had.
After getting married, Joyce and his wife, Erin, moved back to Spokane so she could pursue her masters degree at Gonzaga. He took a job doing concrete work, all the while painting whenever he could. “Throughout this whole time, I was wrestling with how do I create a landscape you can travel through?”
One night while lying in bed and looking up at the non-square shaped ceiling, “suddenly I felt like I was looking down on a cityscape,” says Joyce, of the aerial view he could envision that would capture the landscape of a place from a completely different view. Something clicked and he realized he couldn’t paint a landscape within a perfectly bordered or framed square because that completely contradicts what geography is. Instead, his paintings needed to have borders like the borders of cities and counties – rough ragged, rarely in a straight line and opening onto the unknown that lies beyond. “I use lines to open and break tradition of the canvas; they escape off of it,” he says. “In every piece there is a point of release. Visually you are recreating what is in the void.”
In 2002, at the end of the year, Joyce’s first piece of Abstract Topophilia® was created. “For as long as I could remember I have been an artist and wanting to create,” he says. “It was almost as if the style was inside me, and I wanted to create it.”
At that time Joyce was taking inspiration from atlases and maps. “What these pieces have in common with them is a bird’s eye perspective,” he says. “These are landscapes that show the connection people have to places. It is a visual atlas of connectedness.” These were just sources from which to draw inspiration because, while maps are about measurements and exact points, Joyce’s pieces are about places and experiences. His work is meant to be a connection to a place, reconnecting people to places they love.
In 2005, Joyce had one of his first pieces displayed at Down River Grill, the fan-favorite restaurant near Spokane’s Audubon Park. “My wife dared, or challenged, me to ask them to put it up because we were having a dinner there for our oldest daughter’s baptism,” says Joyce. They thought it would be nice to have it on display so all of the out of town family could see what he had been working on. The 4×8 piece of Spokane did hang on the wall, and his family did get to see it—and so did others. Diners’ eyes would fall upon the piece and something would stir in their hearts. Not long after that, Joyce received a phone call from two diners who had seen the piece and wanted to buy it. He hadn’t planned on the launch of a career, and he didn’t even know what price to tell them when they asked the price. “I think I threw out a number,” he says.
For Joyce the exciting part was not so much that it sold; rather, it was the way the buyers explained their reaction to the place depicted in the piece. “That was exactly what I had been trying to achieve,” he says. “These individuals were describing this piece exactly they way I had set out to accomplish.”
Abstract Topophilia® is an ageless style of art. One piece can trigger very different memories and connections for every person who looks at it, regardless of age. “From the day you are born you have a connection of ‘place’,” says Joyce. “It constantly grows, and you can see so much further in your past. Besides the people who brought you into the world, place has the greatest impact on you. It’s pretty powerful if you think about the power of place.”
Joyce doesn’t need to have been to a place in order to paint it. Using Google maps as a starting point is all he needs, because his connections, his memories and his understanding of a place is not necessary for someone else to see and enjoy a piece. “I can tell you my connection to Spokane, but it will be different that yours,” he says. “My work is not about my connection to my pieces. I feel I am more of a messenger of a style than an artist. I’m not trying to portray my connection to a place. My driving force is that I am giving a visual to the individual to inject their own life into a place.”
Some of the places that Joyce has painted include, Spokane, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Napa, Hawaii, Chicago, Miami, the Southwest, Florence, Rome, Barcelona, Hong Kong and a variety of lakes, golf courses and ski resorts.
“It’s a constant evolution, that’s what keeps it fresh,” he says of his artwork and developing his style. “What I feel so fortunate for is that one day I can pick up oils and do traditional painting and the next day pick up spray paint if graffiti art connects more with that area. There are more natural tones that I use for up here,” he says, referring to the Northwest. “Every day is really exciting for me because it seems everyday the career matures and awareness grows. At the end of the day, the message I’d like to tack onto each piece is ‘love your place.’ If it makes them aware of their place, that’s what it’s meant to do.”
Make them aware, Joyce does. Demand for his work consistently grew since the inception in 2002, and six years ago he asked his younger brother, Jason, to join the team. Jason, just returning from traveling the world and teaching English in Korea, was excited for the venture. Besides wearing many hats, Joyce describes Jason’s involvement in the artwork as “stretching my canvas.” Although the pieces are meticulously sculpted out of layers of wood, Joyce creates a blueprint and Jason in turn, creates the base structure. “It got to a point that I was spending so much time building the base structures, that I couldn’t keep up with the demand and I needed help. We grew up using just about every type of tool, and I knew the great quality of Jason’s craftsmanship. He’s been a critical piece to the success of my work. His talents allow me to focus on the visual composition of each piece, and the development of future series.” Joyce continues, “I’m just beginning, there are so many exciting directions that are in development. I have a great team, and it’s a fantastic way to start a new year!”.
It is a pop culture side effect that the success of an artist is often considered greater when a celebrity jumps on board as a fan. Despite the incredible success that Joyce has already experienced over the past decade, it is hard to not take notice and be impressed that his pieces are in demand for some well known clients. Joyce has a permanent exhibit at the Google headquarters, where he rotates 30 pieces every six months. The Game, a well-known West Coast rapper based in California picked up one of Joyce’s pieces depicting San Francisco, in October. Pharrell Williams, a singer, songwriter, fashion designer, producer and coach on the hit TV-show The Voice, knows a hit when he sees one, and that is what he saw when he beheld Joyce’s piece depicting Los Angeles. He walked out of a Los Angeles gallery with it in hand in November.
For all the deals with major worldwide corporations and celebrity appreciation, Joyce doesn’t seem phased by it. He seems to truly be pleased that people like his art and connect with it in a way that he spent so long trying to figure out how to express. Look at his social media accounts and you’ll see the photos of The Game and Pharrell right next to ones of him curled up with his family during the recent power outage, making forts on the living room floor, or excitedly preparing for a showing at Barrister Winery for a recent First Friday in Spokane. He is grounded in person as well, the passion for his work shining through as he shows the pieces that are coming to life in his studio. Despite his success, he boasts a more appealing nice, humble guy attitude than that of an in-demand artist phenomenon.
Perhaps that is because the celebrity status of neither his clients nor him matters to him. Joyce sees the value of his scope of collectors not by their name or celebrity, but by their connection with a piece. It doesn’t matter if it is a long time art collector, or a college student buying a print of a piece, for their first foray into art collection, Joyce values all of his collectors and wants them all to experience a connection to the works. “No one will have a deeper connection than someone else, to a place,” he says. “Each connection is such a unique one. They are priceless connections that can’t be universalized.”
With his name garnering more attention and more fame coming to his work, it wouldn’t seem unlikely that he would consider making a move to a bigger city, following the fame and fortune. So is this the plan for Joyce?
“Our kids are fifth generation in Spokane,” he says. “I love the pace and family emphasis here, it is so nice for raising a family. It is nice to have my shows nationally and internationally, but Spokane will always be home.”
Person, place or thing. Place – this place of Spokane – is where Joyce connects.